In Riverside Theatre’s upcoming return to Lower City Park (June 17-July 3, free), I will revisit a role I played first in 2019: Henry Plantagenet, who will have graduated from Prince of Wales (Henry IV Part 1) to King of England (Henry V), a position he held from 1413-1422.
Unlike last time, this summer I will play Henry as a man. Several major plot points in this play, as opposed to Henry IV Part 1, hinge on Henry being male.
So, why cast a woman to play him then?
Well, why not?
First of all, Shakespeare probably would not be overly concerned with the gender of the actor matching the gender of the character, as all women’s roles in Shakespeare’s time would have been played by men.
Second of all, Shakespeare wrote these plays not to be historically accurate, but to be well-received by his audiences, which included the subjects of Elizabeth I as well as the Queen herself. He had every reason to make the heroes of the past resemble the leader of the present, and it would not shock me if some of the qualities he gives the fictional Henry V had more to do with Elizabeth than Henry.
Finally, if the above speculation does not satisfy, consider that the play’s prologue practically begs for nontraditional casting in this section:
… But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
If we can imagine that the “wooden O” (a reference to the shape of the Globe Theatre that also conveniently describes our outdoor festival stage in Lower City Park) is a battlefield in France, can we dare to imagine a woman as King Henry V?
For me, the question then becomes “Can I imagine myself as this man?” The answer might have to do with an event in Henry’s life that was never shown onstage.
During the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, as King Henry IV staved off Hotspur’s rebel army, the real Prince Hal took an arrow to the face, yet continued fighting. While England’s overall victory read as a sign God was on their side, the arrow seemed to be a holy warning that the prince was not meant to survive and inherit the throne. Henry V’s scar from that arrow became a lifetime reminder of his fallibility.
Like his father, Henry V’s survival, power and legacy all depended on his followers believing in his divine right to the throne. He led troops into battle at Harfleur and Agincourt, believing his kingly ambition to be backed by God — or at least projecting this image as well as he could. This might be the ultimate example of “fake it ‘til you make it.” Fortunately for him, he triumphed.
With its epic speeches romanticizing rugged masculinity (“Once more unto the breach!”) and brotherhood (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”), Shakespeare’s Henry V can come across as a chauvinistic celebration of one of England’s greatest war heroes. Shakespeare’s focus on Henry’s bravery and leadership, without much mention of his vulnerability, is in line with the ideals of patriotism and enthusiasm that permeated much Elizabethan literature.
But perhaps Henry’s underlying fear is that he is somewhere he has no right to be. That would make this a play about war, yes, but also about the lengths one person will go to in an effort to overcome — or maybe harness the power of — their own impostor syndrome.
As a woman in a position of leadership, I have spent decades trying to prove to myself and others that I have a right to be where I am. My own impostor syndrome largely stems from a lifetime of dealing with sexism. Eventually I got to the point where I decided I could respond to the thought, “Am I inferior?” by asking myself, “Whether I am or not, does it serve me to think so?”
I am a big believer in doing the things that scare me or intimidate me. Nothing is better at showing me what I can handle, and my greatest strengths and proudest accomplishments are connected to the adversity I have overcome.
So many of us have been hit by our own version of an arrow to the face. We have our scars that remind us what we have survived. Perhaps it’s not a question of gender after all. Maybe anyone with an “arrow-scar” has the right to play this king.
Riverside will soon invite audiences to willingly suspend their disbelief and use their imaginations to transform our festival stage into medieval Europe. A man who was perhaps never meant to be king will be played by a woman who was perhaps never meant to speak these words on a stage, and we will see how far a lot of rehearsal and a little faith can take us!
We hope you join us in the park this summer.
Katy Hahn (she/her) is an actor, educator and collaborator who lives in Atkins, Iowa with her husband Bill and children Jack and George. She teaches theater as an adjunct professor at the University of Northern Iowa and Coe College. Katy also acts, directs and coaches dialects at theaters and schools across the state of Iowa. For more information, please visit katyhahn.com.